Allegra Goodman talks about her new novel ‘Sam’ and her writing process

In the past, Allegra Goodman spent her writing days immersed in intricate, imagery worlds: For the novel Kaaterskill Falls, she created a small community of Orthodox Jews in the late 1970s; with Intuitioninvented the politics of a cancer research laboratory. But to write his latest novel, Sam, Goodman challenged herself to look within. “It was almost like you were playing the character,” Goodman tells Bustle. “I just got inside her and had a blast being a 7-year-old again, then a 10-year-old, and each of those ages as they went. This was the magic of the book, in a way to relive it.

Sam begins when the novel’s eponymous protagonist, a rambunctious climber, is 7 years old and struggling. Her father isn’t around much, her mother has a hard time making ends meet, and the other girls at her Massachusetts elementary school aren’t very friendly with her. The book follows Sam throughout his adolescence, confined to his experience; only as Sam ages does the language and perspective of the narrative progress. The result is a painfully intimate portrait of growing up, but for a long time Goodman resisted going that deep on a single character. “In some drafts, I tried to enlarge the book or add other viewpoints and the material seemed to hold up,” Goodman recalls. “I was just like, I have to accept this. I have to hug her. She it’s the book.”

Hugging Sam proved immensely cathartic for Goodman, a way to reflect on his own childhood experiences, as well as his relationship with his daughter. “I drew on my memories [of being a kid]but at the same time, now, from my elder perspective I know what it’s like to get a call from school or hear from a teacher that something happened with your child,” she says. “[Sam was about] seeing it both ways. In literature, at least, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Below, Goodman reflects on her love of black licorice, her Jane Austen pillow, and reading TS Eliot’s secret muse.

On what he’s reading now:

I’m reading a non-fiction book, The Hyacinth Girl by Lyndall Gordon, about TS Eliot and his secret relationship with a woman named Emily Hale. He wrote a letter before he died [saying] that this woman meant nothing to me, but had also written her over a thousand letters. She destroyed all of her letters, but she kept all of hers and donated them to Princeton. Then they were sealed for 60 years or something, and in 2019 they were opened and Lyndall Gordon went to Princeton and read them all. Like this [the book reveals that] this is the young woman he fell madly in love with, and she is the Hyacinth Girl in “The Waste Land”. She was his muse, and it’s just a wonderful non-fiction book.

In her special snack stash:

My favorite snack is Darrell Lea Soft Australian Black Liquirice – it just tastes pure black. I love black licorice and no one in my family will eat it, so it’s perfect because everyone else is eating my snacks otherwise.

Allegra Goodman’s desk. Courtesy of the subject

On her favorite method of procrastination:

I like to procrastinate by reading time management books. Books like 168 hours – you have more time than you think by Laura Vanderkam. I don’t actually take the advice, but reading books like these is a great way to put off work. I keep them around and then end up giving them away and then buy more. Another way I procrastinate is that I like to organize things. I’ll go through my desk or buy books on decluttering. Then I decide by giving those the books away too.

On her favorite writing nook:

My desk is in a very sunny window and I don’t have a good curtain, so it’s too much sun to see my screen. So I retire to this corner of my studio, which is shady, and hide on this little ledge between my window and my printer. That’s where I do most of my work. On my desk I have a nice picture of a page from Ellesmere’s manuscript The Canterbury Tales, which has this nice medieval writing on it. I also have a pillow with Jane Austen’s face on it. So I have some of my heroes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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